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Youth prison: homey touches, razor wire


Juveniles at Catalina Mountain School say the camplike atmosphere of the corrections facility is a far better option than adult prison.

It’s not the way you’d expect a prison to smell – a little like lemon air freshener, with a hint of good food: spicy fried chicken for tonight’s dinner.

And the violent offenders have trimmed the walls of their bright, airy “cottage’ with an intricately hand-painted pattern of half-moons with stars. A mural of the Chinese life forces yin and yang – also painted by the youths – holds a prominent place by the front door.

“I was given a chance by coming here,’ said 15-year-old Manuel, a West Side Tucson youth referred to Catalina Mountain School north of Tucson for committing a gang-related murder. “It was a big break.’

A court order imposed on the state’s juvenile prison system has not altered day-to-day life for Catalina prison inmates, and it has not appeared to affect the officials who care for them. The only difference is that no additional children are coming in through the gates of Catalina – one of Arizona’s three youth prisons.

“I understand the debate in the state. I believe it’s a necessary debate,’ Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections Director Eugene Moore said during a walk through the Catalina facility Friday.

“If in fact (federal Judge Richard Bilby’s) closing of the door begins to really clarify the executive branch, the juvenile courts and the local responsibilities of the counties, this will probably be one of the more important times in the state’s history of delinquency issues.’

Bilby has given Juvenile Corrections officials until May 9 to reduce the youth prison population. His order was written to enforce population caps that were part of a 1993 settlement in a civil rights lawsuit against the state.

Yesterday, the systemwide juvenile corrections population was 576, department spokesman Steve Meissner said, adding that department officials are confident they will be under the 542-child population cap come the court-imposed deadline 14 days from now.

Seven Pima County youths who have been committed to Juvenile Corrections are being housed in the county’s adult jail until spaces open up in youth prison.

Two of the eight were admitted to adult jail just yesterday – after being first transported to Phoenix, but rejected by Juvenile Corrections.

They were a 17-year-old boy with a record of child and sexual molestation offenses and a 16-year-old boy with charges of intimidation, shoplifting, burglary and domestic violence.

Another committed youth, a 13-year-old boy whose court records show 18 assault referrals, two domestic violence charges and seven disorderly conduct offenses, is in the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center because he needs special attention, center spokeswoman Gabriela Rico said.

In Maricopa County, 22 committed youths are being temporarily housed at the county’s two juvenile detention centers until Juvenile Corrections can take them, juvenile court center spokeswoman Jane Stevenson said yesterday.

`Summer camp with fences’

Manuel, a lanky boy who wears a dark-blue net over his black hair, lives in his own 9-by-10-foot room, a crucifix and rosary beads strung across a tiny window. He has been in the school’s Crossroads program for violent offenders since January and hopes to be released in 1997.

Housed in a series of five brick treatment cottages, residents of the Catalina Mountain School, 13 miles north of Tucson, are living in one of the three youth prison complexes at issue in a well-publicized court order that has effectively enjoined juvenile prison officials from accepting any new inmates.

The other two complexes – Adobe Mountain and Black Canyon schools – are in Phoenix.

Catalina has a distinctly different feel from the Arizona Department of Corrections’ Rincon Unit – the adult prison’s 96-bed unit for minors, in the Arizona State Prison Complex-Tucson on South Wilmot Road.

Rincon is for juveniles who are transferred, then found guilty in the adult system. In contrast, Juvenile Corrections is for children whose cases stay in the juvenile justice system – regardless of the crime, Juvenile Corrections can keep the kids only until their 18th birthday.

While Juvenile Corrections is a last-chance sentence in the juvenile justice system, most youths consider it a far better fate than an adult criminal conviction.

Catalina’s carefully groomed grounds do not seem like a prison. The campus is dotted with prickly pears, saguaros and yuccas, with the Santa Catalina Mountains as a backdrop.

Brandon, a 15-year-old North Side Tucsonan and veteran of the juvenile criminal justice system, called Catalina a “summer camp with fences,’ compared to Rincon. He loves the food and feels lucky to be there rather than in the adult system.

Unlike Rincon, where inmates are called just that, staff at Catalina refer to their residents as kids, youths or juveniles.

“Our mission is to reduce the factors that contribute to delinquency,’ Catalina superintendent Thomas M. Turos said.

The youths in the all-male Catalina prison wear their own clothes – as long as none of the items is gang-related. In Rincon, inmates wear the regular adult prison uniform of blue jeans, a cotton T-shirt and either high-cut leather boots from the state or their own athletic shoes.

In Crossroads, the kids are further subjected to rules imposed by their own elected officials. President José, another inmate, last week took away television from the general lounge area because too many residents were fighting about what to watch.

Improved conditions

Catalina Mountain School employees still recall when the Tucson prison had no gate around it. Today, the 32-acre campus is encased by a steel fence topped with razor coil.

Turos, who joined the staff at Catalina in 1982, said today’s offenders are more violent than they were 14 years ago.

Conditions at the Tucson complex then were far worse.

“This lounge used to have no ceiling pads, no carpeting, soaring heat in the summer and bars and grates,’ Turos said, standing inside the recreation area at the Chiricahua cottage.

Catalina now has a population cap of 110 and employs 163 staff members who operate the 24-hour facility. The staff-youth ratio ranges between 1:8 and 1:12, depending on the time of day. The facility has 132 beds. Its current population is 110.

But in the ’80s, Turos recalled, the population often swelled to more than 160.

The 1986 Johnson vs. Upchurch case, filed by Catalina Mountain inmate Matthew Davey Johnson, alleged that kids were warehoused at the facility without proper treatment.

Johnson alleged he was “locked down’ – shackled to a bed for two months with literally nothing to do. His court-appointed lawyer, Grace McIlvain, said Johnson did not have a mattress during the day, only a metal bed frame, and that he could not even read a book.

“All we did was repress hostility, that, once released, was taken out in the community,’ Turos said.

Once a part of the Arizona Department of Corrections, which administers the 22,000 inmates in the adult prison system, the Johnson case spurred Juvenile Corrections to become its own entity by 1990.

The department has a $50 million operating budget for the current fiscal year, plus a $13 million capital improvements budget that’s being used to build rooms for 72 new beds at Black Canyon this year.

A better life

Stocky, tanned and blond, Brandon has two tattoos under each eye. One is four dots, the other a teardrop. His forearms are covered with tattoos.

“This time I’ve been here for seven months,’ said Brandon, who cheerfully gave a tour of the Chiricahua cottage where he lives, ignoring a chorus of “it sucks’ from a couple of his peers who gathered at their room doors to look at a group of visitors.

“The first time I did an aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, then criminal damage and burglary. I also tried to steal a car.’

Brandon added that drugs have been his problem all along – especially methamphetamine.

“They keep giving me breaks,’ said Brandon, on his third stay in juvenile prison. “I keep messin’ up. I assaulted a staff member, and I have to go to court (this month) on that.’

The idea of juvenile corrections, which makes it different from adult prison, is that the state tries to protect public safety while simultaneously keeping juvenile delinquents from becoming adult offenders.

They do it with a strict program of school, counseling, work programs and athletics. The school, run by Principal Susan Stewart-Rickelman, has been accredited for a year and a half. Classes are limited to a 1:15 staff-student ratio, and “homeroom’ teachers continue to track their students’ progress even after they’ve finished at Catalina.

“We really have less problems than you’d think,’ Stewart-Rickelman said.

Prison officials say a simple plan of eight hours of sleep, a good diet and a busy schedule is sometimes all the youths need – especially because in corrections, they have no access to guns, drugs or alcohol. A staff who cares also helps.

Some juveniles get no visitors; others have no place to go when they are released. A support system is their only hope, say corrections officials, who draw on a group of 40 Tucson-area volunteers to help the kids with no family.

“There’s a group of kids who for them, this is a better life,’ said David Gaspar, deputy director of Juvenile Corrections.

Youths work 10-hour shifts

Sixteen-year-old Fernando, a Crossroads inmate found delinquent for burglary and assault, has been at Catalina since November. He’s tired, he said, noting that he has to get up at 6 a.m. and work a 10-hour day, participating in school, recreation, cleaning chores and daily sessions where inmates talk about their problems and set goals for each day.

The youths are all ranked – from freshman to senior – and the rankings are based on behavior. A senior ranking could mean a shorter sentence.

“When I first got here, it was like I was thinking, you know, these staff don’t know what’s going on,’ said Fernando, who is trying to get his General Educational Development certificate while at Catalina. “I wasn’t used to people telling s— to me.’

Fernando recently had his status in Crossroads downgraded for fighting – something that sometimes happens in the showers without staff noticing, he said.

“But if you get caught, you gotta stay longer,’ he added.

Armando, 17, is taking his GED exam this month – an accomplishment that Catalina School officials say will dramatically reduce his chances for recidivism. Armando, a clean-cut Tucsonan, is at Catalina for aggravated assault.

Director Moore, a Tucson resident who has been in the corrections field for 23 years – he started out as a corrections officer at Catalina in 1973 – said the state has already spent $24 million to comply with the federal court’s consent decree.

In spite of some finger-pointing between the executive and judiciary branches, the Johnson vs. Upchurch case and the consent decree have been positive for Juvenile Corrections, Moore said, noting that youth prisons have undergone vast improvements since 1986.

“I have no doubt, in my professional opinion, we have a far greater opportunity to work with youths and hopefully reduce their likelihood to commit another crime,’ Turos added. “We have a lot more tools to be able to work with these guys.’

Long battle waged over improving juvenile system

A time line of events involving the freeze on new inmates in the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections:

* The Johnson vs. Upchurch case, filed in 1986, alleges civil rights violations in the Catalina Mountain School north of Tucson, one of three youth prisons in Arizona.

Matthew Davey Johnson and seven other, unnamed plaintiffs filed the class-action suit against the state, saying they had not received adequate treatment while incarcerated there.

* Johnson vs. Upchurch is settled in 1993. A consent decree – basically a list of 109 terms for improving youth prisons – is part of the settlement.

U.S. District Judge Richard Bilby, the plaintiffs and the defendants from the state were each allowed to choose a consultant for a case-monitoring committee. The three-member committee reviews the case every six months.

The consent decree expires in May 1997, as long as the state is in compliance.

* In the fall of 1995, an increase in violent offenders – combined with a new state law that allows juvenile court judges to give determinate sentences to youths – begins a heavier flow of children into the state’s prison system.

* On April 9, 1996, Bilby signed an order telling Juvenile Corrections officials they must reduce their population by 72 youths before May 9. The order prevents the department from accepting any new children. The order came after a hearing in February during which Bilby warned the department about overcrowding.

* Since Bilby’s order, both Pima and Maricopa counties have been housing “committed,’ or sentenced, youths in their own holding facilities. One Pima County girl was accepted into the state’s Adobe Mountain facility but five boys were turned away.

The state this week had nine vacant beds for females in Adobe Mountain, but no beds for boys.

* Pima County last week began housing committed youths in its adult jail. Juvenile court officials have twice driven Juvenile Corrections-bound youths to Juvenile Corrections officials in Phoenix. Both times, the children were turned away and returned to Tucson.

* Seven of the Maricopa County-committed youths on Friday filed suit against the state, alleging that keeping them in detention was illegal, because they’re supposed to be in juvenile prison. Helene Abrams, juvenile chief of the Maricopa County Public Defender’s Office, said more such habeas corpus petitions will likely be filed on a weekly basis as more children are committed, if the freeze on new youth prison inmates continues.

* As of yesterday, the population in Juvenile Corrections was 576. Only Adobe Mountain remains over the cap set in Bilby’s order. Department officials are confident they will meet the court order by May.

* In spite of finger-pointing between the judiciary and executive branches, Juvenile Corrections director Eugene Moore, appointed by Gov. Fife Symington in 1994, said the Johnson vs. Upchurch case has been an instrument of much-needed change in the youth corrections system.

“The lawsuit was the catalyst; the consent decree the vehicle,’ he said Friday.

* New space planned for the department includes a 24-bed boot camp set to open in either May or June, 48 more beds in the fall, and 200 beds set to open in 1998.

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